One of the first things I remember about September 11, 2001 was how clear and crisp the morning was. September is usually the month of transition between the steamy Washington, DC summer and the beautiful temperate fall. There was no trace of humidity in the air. Everything was crystal clear and everywhere the color seemed to pop, especially the brilliant blue sky. I remember drinking in the refreshingly cool morning air with its barely perceptible scent of decaying leaves, hinting at the change to come.
I arrived early at the White House like I did every morning. I liked to get there before the 7:30 a.m. Senior Staff meeting that gathered in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. At minimum, I’d be available in case any question came up on anything that I was working on. At maximum, I’d be available to take my boss’s place in the event that he was running late. Being there early allowed me to study up for either situation. However, this Tuesday started out uneventful.
The first appointment on my schedule was an 8:00 a.m. interview of a candidate that we were considering to fill a vacancy for a senior-level political appointment. Then there was a break for some phone calls and two short meetings before the next interview at 9:45 a.m. When the 60-minute interview ended a little early, I made some notes and then wandered into the adjoining office where the rest of my team worked.
What was on the television screen mesmerized them. They were watching the live coverage of billowing smoke near the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
“What happened?” I asked.
“They think a small plane hit the north tower by accident,” said Lisa Oliphant, my Staff Assistant.
I asked for and Lisa gave me my call sheet. Then I began prioritizing which calls to return first.
I was about to head back into my office when I heard one of my team gasp. I looked up and saw Flight 175 flying toward the south tower. Then it disappeared into the building followed by a big fireball. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It felt like my heart stopped. Thoughts started bombarding my mind yet it seemed like everything was moving in slow motion. I thought there was silence for a few moments, though I don’t remember if it was really silent or I was feeling shell-shocked. And after what seemed like an eternity, my senses went into super sharp mode and everything snapped into focus.
I asked one of my team to check with some of the Uniformed Division Secret Service officers stationed at a fixed security post near our suite of offices. My first call was to my colleague, Kyle Sampson, who was responsible for filling appointments in the law enforcement portfolio and had recruited Bob Mueller to be FBI Director, sworn in ten days before.
“Kyle, are you watching this?” I asked.
“Yeah. I think I might give a call over to Mueller’s office. Call you right back.”
There was a lot of activity at the Secret Service duty station near my office and one of the officers told us that they would tell us what to do when they got more information.
Ten minutes later, a Secret Service officer told me that unless any of my team was essential personnel, it would be prudent to dismiss them early and leave the White House compound. I called my boss, Clay Johnson, the Director of Presidential Personnel, for permission to let my team go but he was busy and unavailable. So I made the decision to let my team go home early. As we were all gathering our belongings, I called my wife Karen to let her know my status but I could not get through because apparently all circuits were busy.
I poked my head outside my office and saw a number of colleagues starting to leave their offices. The usually sparsely populated hallway outside my office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) was buzzing with activity.
At first, I thought I heard a whistling sound, then a loud long roar of engines, and then silence. It was a cross between the sound of a fighter jet and a missile. I found out later that what I heard was American Flight 77 as it accelerated while flying low to the ground as it headed toward the Pentagon. A few minutes later, on my television in my office, Fox News reported that an explosion just took place at the Pentagon.
A heavily armed Secret Service agent at the station outside my office told me that I was being ordered to go the White House Mess. That was the senior staff dining room in the basement of the West Wing. I immediately left my EEOB office and walked across to the West Wing. As I entered, I remember seeing a phalanx of Secret Service agents literally carrying Vice President Cheney by his arms and rushing him downstairs. A few weeks later, I asked VPOTUS about what his evacuation was like. In his trademark deadpan manner, he said, “It was amazing Ed. My detail came bursting into my office and said they needed to get me to a safe place. The next thing I knew, I was being hoisted up by my arms and rushed out of my office toward the PEOC (the Presidential Emergency Operations Center). Occasionally, my feet touched the ground.”
I made a right turn by the Situation Room, walked down the hallway and made a left into the Mess. I joined 50 or so of my colleagues crammed into the small dining room.
We were all standing there in shock, silence, and confused. My mind was blurry but Josephine Robinson, then the executive assistant to the Chief of Staff recalled: “…you just stepped forward and led in in prayer, that we might be safe and do what we needed to do on behalf of the country…Your prayer calmed and centered us…We were all thinking about our families as well, and for me, your prayer was everything I needed to ground me for what I needed to do that day.” One of the White House photographers captured that moment, which then made it into one of the 9/11 retrospectives a few years later.
I vaguely remember having a short discussion whether we were evacuating when a Secret Service Uniformed Division officer ordered us to evacuate the White House. As we were leaving, another Secret Service agent outside the Mess was telling us (in a firm but calm manner), “Run for your lives. A plane is going to hit the White House.”
I raced across West Executive Drive, up the stairs and into my office suite. My first duty was to make sure all my staff were evacuated. A Secret Service officer who I knew well burst into my office. Normally, the Uniformed Division just carries a sidearm, but my friend had a 9mm submachine gun. My first thought was where did he get that?
“Mr. Moy, get the hell outta here! Get your team and go NOW!
I must have stood there, looking like I did not comprehend.
“Another plane is headed this way! Run, dammit. NOW! NOW! NOW!” And then he was gone.
His words “another plane is headed this way” finally went from abstract to reality in my mind. My body catapulted me into survival mode. I made sure all my staff were accounted for and in the process of evacuating the White House. Then I ran into the now crowded hallway made all the more chaotic by my fellow staffers in various states of speed walking to outright panic running. And I saw dozens upon dozens of Secret Service officers in black jumpsuits, which were the telltale sign of the Emergency Response Team. I remember thinking there were so many of them and where did they all come from?
I heard a fellow staffer say that there was a fire on the National Mall. Another said that the State Department had been bombed. A Secret Service officer was shouting at some female staffers to take their high heels off and run. I went with the flow and exited the east entrance of the EEOB onto West Executive Drive, where we were directed out the north gate. The Secret Service officers at the gate were shouting to us to run away from the White House and don’t stop for anything.
A bunch of us finally caught our breath in Lafayette Park and looked back to see if a plane was headed into the White House. We could see black smoke rising from the Pentagon attack, but because it was behind the EEOB, it appeared that the EEOB was on fire.
That’s when I realized that in my hasty departure, I left my suit coat in my office and in it contained my keys, my Blackberry, and my wallet. All I had was the White House I.D. Badge around my neck. And I wasn’t the only one. The colleagues around me, men and women, were in a similar predicament. And it was clear we weren’t going to be let into the White House anytime soon.
One of us had a friend working for a big lobbying firm on Connecticut Avenue, so we all walked half a dozen blocks north and camped out there for a little while. I tried calling Karen again but all circuits were still busy. So I left a message on our home answering machine that I was going to make my way to our neighborhood tavern, the Hawk and Dove, and hang out there until she could pick me up. I bummed two dollars from a new friend at the firm and took the Metro to the Capitol South station, where I walked a few blocks to my destination. When I got there, I explained my predicament to my friend and longtime Hawk and Dove bartender Paul, who then opened up a tab for me.
I ate lunch and nursed an iced tea while watching coverage of the day’s terrible attacks. Late that afternoon, Karen walked into the Hawk and Dove. Our embrace had an extra measure of gratitude.
She recounted that she was at one of her clients that morning when someone asked her if her husband worked at the White House. When she said yes, she was told that the television had live footage of the White House being evacuated. Immediately, she tried calling me. She had the same problem I did getting through to each other by phone. Later, on a hunch, she called our home line, got through and got my message. She spent the greater part of a day trying to navigate all the traffic caused by the evacuation of the metro Washington, DC area and eventually closed streets around the White House and the Capitol Building.
As we walked to Karen’s car, I felt something different but couldn’t put my finger on it. Then it came to me. It was quiet. Not just the absence of traffic noise, though there was very little traffic. The sky was completely silent. I never noticed noises in the sky until there aren’t any. Later, I learned from Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta that he ordered the FAA to ground all air traffic in the United States and redirect any international flight headed to America. Occasionally, we heard and sometimes saw a pair of F-15s patrol the airspace around Washington, DC.
We had been watching news coverage nonstop and followed President Bush’s actions as he headed back to Washington, DC from Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska. When reporters confirmed that Air Force One had landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Karen and I rushed up to the roof deck of our penthouse condo on Capitol Hill because we were right in Marine One’s flight path between Andrews and the White House.
The VH-3D Sea King has a distinctive sound, especially when they fly in groups up to five, with the others serving as decoys. That night, they were especially loud because they were the only sounds emanating from the sky and an armada of helicopters surrounded them: Apaches leading the way, flanked by Blackhawks, and a Chinook covering the rear flank.
I received a call from the White House operator.
“Mr. Moy, I have Clay Johnson for you.”
“I am calling on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief. The President is ordering all Commissioner Officers to duty tomorrow. It’s critical to show whoever attacked us today that we Americans aren’t going to let them disrupt our way of life. Do you have any issues showing up to work tomorrow?”
“I knew you’d say that. See you tomorrow morning. Goodnight Ed.”
As I hung up the phone and reflected on the day, I thought back to the sense I had earlier that morning of a hint of change in the air. Little did I know how sweeping that change was going to be and that I would have the privilege of serving our country during such a consequential time.
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